There are all types of grieving that is done in a persons life. While we often think of how these changes affect adults, we need to realize that grief affects everyone. With children it is important to remember that depending on their age, their developmental level, their understanding of the situation and their level of experiences to draw on, the grief can appear minimal, or it can truly be devastating. During this blog we are going to focus on the preschool child. There are many levels of grieving- when a favorite toy breaks, a vacation is over, a friend moves away, a child changes daycare, or a family divorces. Today we are going to talk a bit about the grieving when someone dies. While as adults we see this as probably the major reason for grieving, it is important to note that most preschoolers have the same reaction to any of the above. It is not until about the age of 6 that children learn that death is irreversible.
At the preschool developmental level, children have no experience to draw from regarding death. They take everything for "face value". They are often told that "heaven is beautiful", and "filled with beautiful angels". They are told that there is no more suffering, and that is where people go when they die. So why would they be upset or scared or sad? Its like you told them that Grampa went to Disney. They know he is gone, to a place that sounds nice, but they have yet to have the experience that they don't eventually come back. Be sure to use words that preschoolers understand- Grampa didn't "pass", he didn't "go to rest", he didn't just fall asleep and didn't get up, or we didn't "lose" him (think about what THAT sounds like to a preschooler)...Grampa died. You can explain how he died in language that they understand, but often they won't even ask at that age. Remember, the only death they have witnessed is often cartoons where death is reversible. The reactions you see are often in confusion to the child seeing the adults around them behaving in ways that are not typical. Why is mom crying? Why is no one reading me a bedtime story?(There are many books that deal with the life cycles.) Why is everyone to busy to play with me? It is in response to these changes that you sometimes see clingy or regression in behavior. Maintain as much structure and routine as possible. Rituals are critical as is time for them to unwind and have fun. Get them back to as much of their norms as possible. Let them ask questions, give them the most basic answer using simple words to explain that you can- that is all they are looking for, or able to understand.
Through the years I have seen many children deal with death- from the loss of a beloved pet, to a grandparent to the tragedy of losing both parents. Preschool children are remarkably resilient given the right tools. Being in a "family" child care business, I have had the children experience "first hand" the loss. Thirty three years ago my mother died suddenly at 57. One day she was on a field trip with us, the next day she was gone. For the last three years my father has lived in my home. While the children didn't have a lot of contact with him, they waved and talked to him at lunchtime, and brought him special treats from home or during birthdays. They understood what dementia did to his brain, and how as he was forgetting more, we had to watch out for him more. I closed for a week before his death, and the parents told the children that grampa was getting ready to die, and that I wanted to be there so he wasn't alone. They all got that. The day after his funeral I braced myself for what may come- "out of the mouths of babes". All I heard was "so I heard Grampa died". There was no hugging, no looking at me with sad eyes, no pain. Just matter of fact- sharing something they knew. Three days later we had to be upstairs while they removed my fathers bed and oxygen machine. While my stomach was turning at the finality, I was also preparing myself to answer some tough questions. But it didn't happen- while I explained that the man was coming to get "Grampa's bed", a little girl piped up and told everyone "Yeah, they have lots of beds in heaven, Grampa doesn't need to take it with him". "Like a hotel". Then the same little girl said "they are sending it to Maine, because they don't have enough beds there". And that was it......nine children content and happy with the knowledge. How blessed I am to have had them to go through this journey with- they have "kept it real".
I'd like to end with a story of my grandson Jackson- not quite two years old. Jack is non verbal- but understands everything, and gets his point across by grunting, pointing and facial expressions. Since his birth, Gramp has been a part of Jacks daily routine as he came here in the afternoons. In the last few months, as care for Grampa increased it always amazed me that Jack (his nickname is Tornado Jack) would instinctively sit still for as long as it took me to deal with Gramp. He'd sit and watch, not making a peep. On the day of his death, Grampa's Italian nurse came to say goodbye, and she told us to be sure to "open the window" when he passed, so that the spirit could exit quickly. That evening- as we all were there to witness Gramps last breath, we quickly opened the window- then later questioned how long we should leave it open etc. Through all of this time, Jack sat in his chair and just watched everything. Never making a peep. Two days later he was over and walked into Gramps room pointing towards the bed "Old Grampa died, didn't he Jack".....then he quickly points to the window.....